Going solo?

A common criticism of traditional eastern fighting arts is the emphasis those arts place on solo practice - often at the expense of 2 person practise.

Indeed, many traditional fighting arts are so steeped in solo forms that they have barely no partner application at all. When they do, it is often stilted, stylised and unrealistic.

This criticism has led many martial artists who are interested in pragmatism to abandon solo forms - be they full kata/xing/patterns or shorter drills such as "deflect/strike" combinations - in favour of going straight into 2 person application.

I can see the issues - however I still think that, depending on the technique being taught, some level of "solo" training is essential if you want to hone correct, efficient form.

In my experience, the need for any "delay" in moving to 2 person drills is a function of just how sophisticated (ie. complex, but for the purposes of gaining greater efficiency) the movement is that you want to teach.

I have often remarked how combat sports practitioners don't have good front kicks. This is demonstrated quite starkly in the following fights of Shotokan karateka turned K1 fighter Leaon Walters.

Shotokan karateka Leon Walters in K1 action against Kevin Hunt. Note the Hunt's "teep" at 1:25.

In the above fight at about 1:25 you'll see a stark difference between Kevin Hunt's opening "teep" - the dreadful "raking" or "pushing" excuse for a front kick - and Walter's effective mae geri at 1:07 in his fight below against Guy Golden.

Leon Walters against Guy Golden. Note his mae geri at 1:07.

The difference? Quite stark. Why? In my opinion you just can't develop a good front kick unless you do hours upon hours of "air kicking" as Walters would most certainly have done. Yes, you do need to start working on kicking something - but even then, you don't want to be kicking the heavy bag; it is simply nothing like a human body and encourages the wrong emphasis for the front kick. Too much resistance (in the form of a heavy bag which is nothing like a human body) produces "push" (as I describe in my article "Visible force vs. applied force").

The difference between visible force typically applied by those who have insufficient "solo" training to develop good form on the front kick, and the "shock" kick which results from such solo training

In my experience, even moving to a kickshield too soon can lead to bad form. If you want to develop a good front kick, there simply is no substitute for thousands upon thousands of air kicks. Odd? Tell that to a Japanese sword master who can cut through thick bamboo without bending his blade. Ask him/her whether he or she developed this skill without one thousand or so "air cuts" every morning.

A related weapon provides an even better example of the need for solo work:

In my jo (4 foot staff) techniques, a lot of stock is placed on learning to "slip" attacks while using minimal force. In order to make this work you need to have a good grasp of the basic form of the movements. When real pressure is applied to rank beginners either (a) they get clobbered or (b) they default to a simpler movement which, while effective in stopping the attack, does not use the attacker's force against the attacker as the technique is supposed to (or set them up for the counter in the way the technique is supposed to). In short, there is a system which they are not following.

Having said all that, I have students practise a 2 person application very soon - in the same lesson. I don't expect the form to be correct however (and it never is in the first few months). The solo form teaches the subtle aspects to the technique and allows these to be grooved without slipping into a simpler technique - ie. what the students will do "instinctively".

A jo drill done solo and with 2 people. Note the flow in the solo version; practised students apply the same speed and efficiency in 2 person practice.

I often have debates with people who say one should do "what comes instinctively". For reasons I won't go into great detail here, this is not a theory to which I adhere. It is sufficient to say that true, one can rely use instinctive responses to one's benefit. Arts like arnis (Filipino stick and knife arts) do so to some extent (but only to some extent: try telling a beginner that "sinawali" - a weaving motion using 2 sticks in attack - is "instinctive"!).

In the broader scheme of things, if "instinct" (eg. our instinct to flinch or cower) were effective in itself, we'd all be masters of the martial arts without any training. There is always a point at which we have to learn things that modify or even replace our "instinctive" reactions. Just how much that instinct is displaced is a function of the sophistication (ie. complexity, but not pointless complexity) of the movement being taught.

In terms of what I teach (and apply in a dynamic setting), a lot depends on teaching students a whole set of new skills - skills that are not "instinctive". This is much the same as a sport like tennis: when you get coaching and they tell you to hold the racket a particular way, step with a particular foot, stand at a particular place in the court , etc. they are teaching things that don't come "naturally" in the sense that you don't do it automatically after coming out of the womb. Everyone wants to just "go out and play" - but my tennis coach had me working on drills for a full month before he said I could go to my local club and play games. I'd still be hopeless, but they would at least let me join and play (I wouldn't make a total idiot of myself). I finally knew enough not to embarrass myself with proper players. [I'd played for years with mates and made a hash of it, stabbing at balls, using the wrong grip, approach, stance, court placement etc. I'd had countless matches. However to my coach my previous "experience" was useless because I had no technique at all. All I'd gained from it were a bunch of bad habits - which were all the more difficult to remove given my previous "practice".]

Combat is sometimes seen as less "sophisticated" than something like tennis. This is because strength and simple force can triumph over technical skill in combat - indeed they most often do. Combat has a very simple goal but far more variables than a game like tennis. It takes a lot of skill to overcome greater force with technique in combat, because the goal is not scoring a technical point with a ball, but clobbering someone. And unlike tennis and other sports, fear, adrenaline, aggression etc. are all far more potent factors. Nonetheless, subtle technical refinement in combat is useful and important - particularly for continuing advancement/improvement. It just isn't as easy to discern this importance in the shorter term.

In the arts I teach, technique is something that ultimately reduces your need for strength by making your application of force more efficient. In the shorter term it isn't going to achieve as much as just "going out there and hitting". But I believe the longer term gives scope for greater overall skill.

Even more subtle arts can be found in, say, Okinawa ti or the internal arts of China. There is a point at which technical emphasis can over-ride pragmatism. However I think there is room for emphasis on technical refinement in any system. All that differs is how much technical refinement we are interested in pursuing. Too much emphasis on refining precise angles etc. can lead to mastery of an "art" but not any practical skill in the short to intermediate term. On the other hand, emphasis on practicality can lead to development up to a point, then stagnation.

We are all, I suppose, seeking that "holy grail" of the best mix. We might all differ on where that holy grail is to be found and I think that is always going to be the case. It makes discussions interesting. I'm fairly sure that none of us holds the answer. But is fun to have a look at differences in approach. We all learn something.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. "This is because strength and simple force can triumph over technical skill in combat - indeed they most often do."

    This is a very simple truth that all martial artists should always bear in mind when they "engage." Adrenaline and fear aside, there are so many imponderables in combat that to think one can by training, pragmatically or solo, encompass them all is unrealistic.

    The refinement than comes in solo training and the muscle memory that come from the endless drills can surely count for something. The fact that I even punch or kick air is usually more than most people do anyway.

    And "most" people is what you are most likely to encounter. The professional combatant is seen rarely outside the ring or war. That is why he or she is a professional. I would no sooner voluntarily engage with a professional MMA brute than I would with Morio Higaonna.

    But if I were forced to, I'd at least had my air punching, deflections, and evasion drills to maybe win some time for an honorable escape. Drills and kata also make you aware of your limitations ... and strengths, physical, spiritual and otherwise.

    Needless to say, I'm a firm believer in refinement and technique. It is, after all, an art.

  2. People who have trained to beat others within a bound set of rules, are very good at doing just that. However, if you interrupt their OODA cycle (Colonel Boyd's theory), then you gain the initiative just as unconventional warfare allows insurgents the advantage even though they cannot beat the occupation army at the occupation army's own game.

    All it requires is that you ignore certain social rules and prioritize victory and pragmatism over "it isn't done that way".

    It isn't done that way because they can win if you follow their rules. Of course they can. That's what they trained to do. But when you break the rules, MMA giants will fall as easily as Goliath did.


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